A Very Roman Pope

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It was two hours before Pope Benedict XVI would take his historic step into the Cologne synagogue, and reporters were not impressed with what the Pope planned to say. Reading from the prepared text of Benedict's speech, a Vatican-based German correspondent pointed out what the speech didn't say. Sure, there was a no-holds-barred denunciation of what happened in Germany during World War II, which Benedict called "an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism...the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry." But where was a more explicit reference to the role of German Catholics in allowing the Nazi deportation of millions of Jews? And where was some reference to the German Pope's own experience? After all, the teenage Joseph Ratzinger was drafted into the Hitler Youth in his native Bavaria, against his will and the wishes of his own anti-Nazi policeman father. Or why not mention what he, as a young German priest, thought when the full extent of Hitler's crimes came to light? Still, my colleague would reserve final judgment until the noon ceremony in the synagogue.

The media pool was extremely limited, and I was the only American reporter lucky enough to be included inside the blue-domed, brown stone structure that was rebuilt in the 1950s after being destroyed by the Nazis. With his hands humbly clasped in front of him, the Pope walked into the main hall as the choir sang, ''Shalom alechem,'' or ''peace be with you." After two Hebrew hymns, and the blowing of the shofar ram's horn, the son of a Holocaust survivor and then the synagogue's rabbi spoke. When it came time for Benedict to rise, his remarks wouldn't stray much from the original text. But there was something happening that went beyond words. It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath. It was, in other words, in the German Pope's very presence, which was his own initiative as soon as his trip was scheduled to come to Cologne for the Catholic World Youth day. The synogogue's standing ovation for Benedict was confirmation that German Jews appreciated the gesture.

But why didn't Papa Ratzinger make even one small reference to his own experience? In a press conference later this afternoon, Karl Cardinal Lehman, the head of the German Bishops Conference, quite naturally referred to being nine years old and remembering people in his town taken away, never to return. John Paul II spoke about his own experiences every chance he could, about knowing Jews who were deported from his hometown in Poland. But perhaps Benedict, beyond a basic human shyness, also sees his role differently than his predecessor. He doesn't want to impose his own persona on the pontificate. He doesn't want his life's story to represent the Church's. He wants his words to educate as much as inspire. As a colleague who accompanied John Paul on his own first homecoming after his election, remarked yesterday: "Wojtyla was much more the Polish Pope than Ratzinger is a German Pope." John Paul was also of course a globetrotter. And perhaps after more than 20 years as a top Vatican official—and 24 hours of his first foreign trip—Benedict seems destined to be very much a Roman Pope.